There are lots of choices that couples need to make as they plan for their big day—steak vs. chicken; roses vs. hydrangeas; prenup vs. no prenup—but only a few will make the decision between selecting a civil union vs. a marriage. While either legal status can be celebrated with a festive party and fancy attire, there are a few key distinctions that should be understood.

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What is a civil union?

In the United States, a civil union is a marriage-like legal status, currently only issued to new couples in a few states: Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, and New Jersey. Originally established to provide many of the same protections that a marriage offers to both same-sex and heterosexual couples, a civil union is different from marriage in that is only recognized at the state level. When same-sex marriage was made legal across the United States in 2015, some existing civil unions were converted to marriages, however many couples still opt for and remain in civil unions today.

What rights do civil unions provide?

In states where they are still issued or recognized, civil unions often share the same protections as marriages. These generally include:

    • Estate planning: When your spouse dies, you can inherit all of their assets without incurring taxes.
    • Employment: You can be covered by your spouse's employment benefits, such as health insurance; and you have the right to bereavement leave if your spouse passes away.
    • Healthcare: You may have the right to make medical decisions on behalf of your spouse, as well as have unlimited visitation privileges, if they are sick.
    • Parental rights: You and your spouse may share joint parental rights over your children.
    • Property: You may co-own property as joint owners and have the right of survivorship if one spouse passes away.
    • Separation: You can seek alimony if your civil union is dissolved.
    • Spousal privilege: You cannot be forced to testify against your spouse in court.
    • Taxes: You can file state taxes jointly. (Though federal taxes still have to be filed separately.)

    While these rights are the same in marriage, the primary difference is that civil union partners are only guaranteed these protections within the state. A civil union does not entitle a couple to the federal benefits that only marriage can provide.

    What federal benefits do marriages provide?

    In addition to the above, marriage grants couples certain unique rights and protections at the federal level. These include:

    • Immigration: Married or engaged individuals are able to file visa petitions for a spouse or fiancé(e) who isn't a citizen.
    • Social Security: The Social Security Administration (SSA) does not guarantee that it will recognize all civil unions when determining eligibility for benefits, but it does recognize all marriages. That said, the SSA does encourage anyone to apply for benefits regardless of whether you are in a marriage or civil union.
    • Tax: You may file federal taxes jointly.
    • Veterans: Surviving spouses of veterans may be eligible for health coverage, educational assistance, and home loan programs, among other benefits.

    As a result of the differences noted above, is is important to consider which option is best for your new family. Though a prenuptial agreement isn't the most romantic item on the wedding planning agenda, it's the only way to protect you and your assets before entering a marriage or civil union. A lawyer can answer any questions that you might have about the process.

    Get started Start Your Prenuptial Agreement Answer a few questions. We'll take care of the rest.

    Get started Start Your Prenuptial Agreement Answer a few questions. We'll take care of the rest.